When we think of representations of landscapes in art, the first thing that comes to mind might be the rich history of landscape painting. Developing in the Egyptian, Roman, and Chinese traditions, landscape painting developed techniques of perspective, as well as idealistic concepts of nature— often focusing on the lack of humans, or at least minimal evidence of their existence in the works, in contrast to the “pure nature” of the landscape image.
In Spencer Finch’s installation at the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park, entitled The Western Mystery, we find a new form of landscape representation. With many colored panes of glass suspended from the ceiling of the PACCAR Pavilion, derived from images of sunsets of Seattle, Finch creates a landscape that is both representational and abstract, referencing Impressionistic landscapes of the 19th century. As the light from the pavilion windows shine through the glass, and as the viewer walks around the space, not only one but several skies are projected across the inside of the building.
I have seen a number of contemporary landscapes in art trending towards the technological, as well as bringing landscape from the medium of painting into the three dimensional space of sculpture. For instance, at the John Yeon show at the Portland Art Museum, a large projection depicts time-shifted representations of a particular parcel of land near the Columbia River, both as a representation of the architect’s lasting legacy, and as example of his inspiration. The image moves, as the camera view pans across the landscape. Projected in the back of the gallery this screen brought the outside in, and used technology to bring us outside, as a contrast to the models of buildings on display.
Finch’s installation uses projection as well, but a much more passive, analog form. The panes of glass are like giant slides, and require the movement of the sun throughout the day to bring the motion of the sky inside the building. And yet, they also invoke the technological. Each separate color tone reads like a sampling of a digital photograph, and together they form a highly pixelated image, a digitally-remixed sky created as a hybridized, time-lapse portrait of the atmosphere.
The installation also references some of those older ideals of sublimity. The suspended glass is as if shattered, and also threatening shattering. Bringing the outside into a modern, contemporary art space juxtaposes the ever present environment with our architectural attempts to keep that environment at bay. Without that ceiling and the white walls that support the installation, the actual sky would be visible. And yet in the tenuous balance, the light still shines in to activate and animate the installation. With flat planes of glass, the space is transformed in three or even four dimensions, as this landscape takes to the air.